Berat or Gjirokastër: Which Historic City to Visit in Albania?

Berat and Gjirokastër are both UNESCO World Heritage sites, known as two of the most captivating cities in Albania. Their distinct Ottoman architecture turns each city into a living historical museum, featuring charming whitewashed houses with slate roofs. These cities are often compared to each other or mentioned together as must-see locations in Albania.

Although Berat and Gjirokastër are both steeped in history, they are not very close to each other, nor are they identical. We have visited both cities and have written comprehensive city guides about the top things to do in Berat and the top things to do in Gjirokastër. In this third blog post in our series, we compare the two and help you decide which one might be the right choice for you!


Berat or Gjirokastër: The Most Enchanting UNESCO Towns in Albania

Berat and Gjirokastër are often named the two most beautiful towns in Albania. Their historical feel, Ottoman architecture, and the overall charm of these towns are quite similar, which is why they often get compared. They are so similar that they share a spot on the UNESCO World Heritage List, celebrated for their unique Ottoman architecture that is rare in the Balkans.

This Ottoman architecture features mostly whitewashed buildings constructed from local stone, wooden beams, and slate roofs. Many of these homes have wooden balconies that overlook the narrow, cobblestoned streets. Berat is particularly famous for its rows of white Ottoman houses built up the hillside, presenting a beautiful array of windows, which has given it the nickname “City of a Thousand Windows”.

Both cities also have strategic positions on steep hills, giving them a natural defensive advantage in the past. Now, these spots offer stunning views over the twisty, stone streets. The highest points of both Berat and Gjirokastër are marked by their grand citadels. Historically, these strongholds contained castles, vital facilities, and homes. Gjirokastër’s castle has been turned into a museum, while Berat’s citadel is open to the public and includes a combination of ruins and homes that are still occupied today.

Lastly, both Berat and Gjirokastër are perfect examples of how Albania’s diverse cultural and religious communities have lived together through history. This harmonious coexistence is evident in the various religious buildings found within the cities. The presence of both mosques and churches within their borders is a testament to the religious and cultural integration typical of Albania.

Berat Albanie

How Berat and Gjirokastër Differ from Each Other

While both Berat and Gjirokastër showcase unique examples of Ottoman architecture and are UNESCO World Heritage sites, they each offer a very different experience. Let’s explore the distinctions.

Gjirokastër, the City of Stone

Gjirokastër is often called the ‘City of Stone’ because its typical Ottoman white houses also feature rugged stone architecture. However, this characteristic isn’t exclusive to Gjirokastër, as buildings in Berat often have a similar stone base with white plastered walls above.

In terms of attractions, Gjirokastër is famous for its historical mansions, while Berat is known for its many mosques and churches. These mansions in Gjirokastër, known as kullë or tower houses, were built by wealthy landowners. They were designed to be well-defendable homes with plenty of food storage and usually their own water source. The upper floors, often used for social events, feature stunning interiors. Three of these homes, the Zekate House, the Skenduli House, and the Kadare House, have been turned into museum houses offering a unique peek into the city’s past.

The castle of Gjirokastër is also quite different from Berat’s. It is an impressive historical fortress dating back to before the twelfth century. The castle complex has been beautifully restored and is open to visitors, featuring several museums, towers, houses, fortress walls, two mausoleums, an American airplane, and more. Additionally, the Cold War Tunnels beneath the castle complex were intended to protect against nuclear attacks during the Cold War.

Geographically, the cities are also distinct. Gjirokastër is in the southern part of the country, closer to the Albanian Riviera, and surrounded by mountains, offering beautiful hiking opportunities. From the old town, nature walks like the trek to the Ali Pasha Bridge are easily accessible.

Berat, the City of a Thousand Windows

Berat earns its nickname ‘City of a Thousand Windows’ through its layout. Unlike the winding streets of Gjirokastër, Berat’s houses line up in rows against the hillside, all facing outwards, presenting a sea of windows. The nickname captures this picturesque view beautifully.

While we highly recommend the old museum houses in Gjirokastër, Berat’s attractions include numerous mosques and churches. The Citadel of Berat alone once housed 42 churches, of which eight still stand. The Citadel also has ruins of some of the oldest mosques in Albania here, including the Red Mosque and the White Mosque. Prominent mosques in Berat include the Lead Mosque, the King’s Mosque, Halveti Tekke, and the Bachelor’s Mosque, particularly notable for its beautiful frescoes. The largest church, the Saint Demetrius Cathedral, is built in a Byzantine style.

The Citadel of Berat is a remarkable site. Originally built in the fourth century as a fort, it was transformed in the thirteenth century into a fortified city. Uniquely, it remains a living city, still inhabited today! Atop the hill, you’ll find a blend of ancient ruins and historic castle elements alongside narrow streets, historic houses, shops, museums, churches, and stalls. The castle feels almost like its own village within Berat. Entrance is free.

Geographically, Berat is also unique as it is bisected by the Osum River, which separates the Muslim quarter, Mangalem, from the Christian quarter, Gorica, linked by a bridge that acts as a central feature of the city. Berat lies closer to the capital, Tirana, and is a popular day trip destination, just about two hours’ drive away.

Berat Citadel

Which City Offers the Best Day Trips

When it comes to day trips, Gjirokastër takes the lead with more options.

Berat offers popular excursions like the Osum Canyon, known as the ‘Grand Canyon of Albania’, about 1.5 hours’ drive away. This magnificent gorge, with its steep cliffs and opportunities for rafting and canyoning, is a must-see. Similarly, the coastal city of Vlorë, with its beautiful beaches and pastel center, is also about 1.5 hours away. Closer still, about 75 minutes’ drive, lies Apollonia, an archaeological site with well-preserved ancient Greek ruins.

Gjirokastër offers an even wider range of day trips. The Blue Eye, a stunning natural spring, is about 50 minutes away. Përmet, just over an hour’s drive, is known for its outdoor adventures and hot springs. The breathtaking Albanian Riviera is also easily accessible. History and archaeology buffs will appreciate Butrint, an ancient Greek-Roman city on the UNESCO list, about 75 minutes away. The tourist resort of Sarandë, perfect for experiencing the Mediterranean vibe, and the picturesque beaches and islets of Ksamil are also nearby.


Which is Easier to Reach: Berat or Gjirokastër?

One important factor to consider when planning your visit is the accessibility of Berat and Gjirokastër. Which city is easier to get to?

Berat is relatively straightforward to reach from Tirana, the capital of Albania, where the country’s only international airport is located. The drive from Tirana to Berat takes about two hours. Consequently, Berat is a favored choice for a day trip from the capital.

On the other hand, Gjirokastër, situated in the southern part of Albania, is a bit more challenging to access from Tirana, with the journey taking just over three hours. However, this city is more conveniently reached from the Albanian Riviera, such as Sarandë, which is only an hour’s drive away. Additionally, Gjirokastër is well-connected to the Greek island of Corfu, which has an international airport. Positioned directly across from Sarandë on the Albanian coast, regular ferries can transport you across in just thirty minutes. Therefore, while Corfu may not initially come to mind as a gateway to Albania, it serves as a practical alternative to flying into Tirana.

For those planning to explore both cities, it’s useful to know that the drive between Berat and Gjirokastër is quite manageable, taking roughly 2 hours and 45 minutes. There’s also a daily direct bus service connecting the two cities. From our experience, the most convenient way to travel around is by renting a car in Albania, which is also quite affordable.


Conclusion: Berat or Gjirokastër?

In our view, Berat stands out because of its citadel, which offers a unique experience compared to the more refined castle museum in Gjirokastër. However, Gjirokastër arguably has more to offer in terms of stunning natural scenery and compelling day trips. It’s tough to choose between the two as both cities are incredibly picturesque. If your schedule allows, we highly recommend visiting both.

If you do need to make a choice based on their location: Berat is nearer to Tirana, making it an excellent option if you’re based in or around the capital. Gjirokastër lies much further south and is ideal if you’re exploring the Albanian Riviera or the southern regions. If your visit to Albania is more brief, perhaps consider just a day trip to Berat from Tirana.